The healing power of nature, the need for optimism, the importance of handcraft, the celebratory power of forward-looking fashion: All these things have been constant talking points in Paris for over a week now, but it took Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel to actually bring the vertiginous cliffs and coursing waterfalls of the Gorges du Verdon to the Grand Palais and wrap it all up in a final spectacular word on every point. The scenery—a facsimile of a beauty spot in the South of France—was so naturalistic that a breeze floated along the canyon, blowing off the girls’ clear plastic boaters and setting their extraordinary clothes flowing as they strode on in their thigh-high plastic boots. “Did you feel it?” asked Karl Lagerfeld (rhetorically) afterward. “The molecules from the water, when you breathe them in, it’s very healthy for you! It’s why you feel good in places like this.”
He had no need to check. We felt it, all right. Whether it was endorphin effects of the big outdoors scenario or the clothes, this walk in the country produced a fashion high that was shot through with relevance. The spray and the sunlight sparkled on clear plastic coats and capes; the house tweeds fluttered with fringes or were reduced to almost transparent cages. Lurex threads and crystal jewelry glinted. The intricate balance between natural-looking textures and advanced technical skills was breathtakingly dynamic to behold.
With eyes and ears open to the disco-era revival that has been playing across Paris, it was easy to infer a ’60s/’80s youth vibe going on here: See the space-age boots and the astronaut-girl capelets, and wasn’t that the underlying beat of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love” on the soundtrack? Karl Lagerfeld was having none of it. “You are too young to remember the Sixties. They were never like this! The fabrics then were terrible. There’s not a fabric here which you can buy elsewhere. They’re all made by Chanel, in-house.”
Touché. And yet. To think of plastic in fashion—and of talk of new generation—is inevitably to be reminded of what was going on in Paris in 1967, when Andre Courreges and Paco Rabanne pioneered the use of new materials at a time when it seemed the world was flying toward an optimistic future. Fifty years ago was also the beginning of the political youth uprisings that spread from the Summer of Love in San Francisco to Les événements in Paris in 1968. That time was all about a mass movement of liberal values which swept America and Europe.
Karl Lagerfeld was around to witness all this postwar excitement as a young man who had left his home in Germany and won The International Woolmark Prize competition in 1957. He is now horrified at the rise of neo-nazism in the country of his birth—after the recent election, far-right candidates are now in the German Bundestag for the first time since Hitler rose to power. “Germany, when I was eighteen, was not so funny,” Lagerfeld understated. So was there a political shadow behind this optimistic collection too? If you will, yes. “I don’t make explanations of what I design. I am not a philosopher who leaves notes on seats,” he said, waving away that kind of talk. “You watch; you can see what you want.” Meanwhile, mother nature played hand-in-hand with the Chanel mood beautifully. It may have only been a set, but at one point, as the sun came out, a real rainbow appeared in the waterfall, humanity’s biblical symbol of hope for the future.